Cycling Away from Depression Without Going Anywhere

All you need is a bike – no Rx required!

Have you ever felt exhilarated, euphoric, or elated after an upbeat indoor cycling workout? As it turns out, it’s not just a temporary mood-booster. If done regularly, indoor cycling can actually improve depression and/or anxiety (and sometimes better than antidepressants can!).

Here’s proof: In a 2009 study, researchers in Belgium had 48 people with depressive or anxiety disorders engage in three different 20-minute cycling sessions at different intensities – one of their own choosing, one with a heart rate monitor, and a third at a prescribed intensity of 50 percent of maximum heart rate reserve.

The participants’ anxiety and subjective well-being were evaluated before and after the cycling sessions, and after each workout, the participants showed decreased anxiety and negative mood. After the bout of cycling at the self-selected intensity, participants experienced enhanced feelings of positive well-being, too.

Meanwhile, a 2015 study from Sweden found that when 76 people with irritable bowel syndrome did five hours of walking, aerobics, or cycling per week for 12 weeks, they experienced an improvement in their symptoms of depression and anxiety, as well as their fatigue and gastrointestinal distress. And a 2010 study from Turkey found that when people with multiple sclerosis did progressive training on an exercise bike for eight weeks, they experienced considerable improvements in their symptoms of depression and fatigue and their physical functioning.

Getting to the Source of the Improvements

It’s widely believed that the mood-boosting benefits of indoor cycling and other moderate to vigorous aerobic workouts stem from the release of endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers, or from increased feelings of self-efficacy.

But that may be only part of the story. For example, a 2011 study at Arizona State University had people with depression engage in 30-minute stationary cycling workouts three times a week at 70 percent of their maximum heart rate or a stretching program. After seven weeks, those in the cycling group experienced a greater drop in blood levels of the brain chemical (neurotransmitter) serotonin – similar to what selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) antidepressants achieve – and lower levels of depression than those who did the stretching exercises did.

The beneficial mood effects of aerobic exercise are so powerful that even people whose depression doesn’t respond to SSRI’s (what’s often called treatment-resistant depression) can experience a mood improvement with exercise as an added form of therapy. In a 2011 study from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, researchers assigned 126 depressed people who were taking SSRIs to two different exercise protocols (at a lower dose or a higher dose) to see which one might help: Those who exercised on a cycle ergometer or a treadmill or a combination of the two at a higher dose had a higher remission rate than those who worked out at a lower intensity or simply stuck with SSRIs.

Finding the Sweet Spot

If you want to maximize the mood-enhancing effects of indoor cycling, you may want to aim for the optimal intensity where you feel like you’re getting a great workout and challenging your body and mind the right amount. In fact, there’s something called the Feeling Scale, which can be used to regulate your exercise intensity in a way that maintains a positive effect on your mood.

Rather than relying on the ratings of perceived exertion scale to reach the right aerobic intensity, you can use the Feeling Scale to gauge how you’re feeling at various times in your workout: -5 (very bad), -3 (bad), -1 (fairly bad), 0 (neutral), +1 (fairly good), +3 (good), or +5 (very good).

If you find your feelings falling on the bad side of the scale during a cycling workout, you can make adjustments to your resistance, pace, or other aspects of your ride, to help push you into the feel-good zone. Cycling at an intensity that feels “good” also can lead to gains in cardiovascular fitness, according to a 2015 study from the U.K. That’s a positive double whammy, indeed!

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